Long ago, after the legendary Ages of Gold and Silver, came the equally legendary Age of Vinyl, wherein music was purveyed by means of twelve-inch black discs that played on both sides. During that lost age, I bought a double album called The Complete Mr Fox, which combined the only two albums released by the titular band. I still have it and play it sometimes, but a few weeks ago I bought Join Us In Our Game, exactly the same content in CD form.
Mr Fox was an English folk-rock band formed in 1970. The early 70s was a great period for the genre, with classic bands like Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and the Albion Band developing their styles, as well as several lesser-known groups, notably Trees and Mr Fox.
The central members, Bob and Carole Pegg, were friends of Ashley Hutchings and discussed forming a band with him after he left Fairport. Their visions weren't quite the same, though, and while Hutchings formed Steeleye Span to perform traditional songs and tunes, the Peggs created a band that combined the feel of the traditional village band — the kind of outfit that switched seamlessly between the village dance on Saturday night and the chapel on Sunday morning — with influences from art-rock bands such as the Velvet Underground and the Third Ear Band.
The line-up on the first album is Bob on organ, melodeon and whistle; Carole on fiddle; Andrew Massey on cello; John Myatt on woodwinds; Barry Lyons on bass, and Alun Eden on drums. The sound is heavily layered, in contrast to the unified sound of a rock band, creating a dreamlike soundscape against which Bob and Carole tell their tales.
The songs are mostly (with a couple of exceptions) rooted in the Yorkshire Dales, the Peggs' adopted home, but many take the form of macabre fantasy — none more than in the band's title song. Not to be confused at all with the children's song of the same name (or the Roald Dahl book, of course) Mr Fox is a grand guignol tale of a girl's narrow escape from her predatory (and possibly were-fox) fiancé after she finds out what he does in his mansion in the forest. Other songs in similar vein are The Gay Goshawk, about another shapeshifter that leaves the heroine with a baby with silver eyes; The Hanged Man, about the ghost of a dead hiker; and Rip Van Winkle, Bob's Yorkshire take about the man who wakes to find the world he knew long gone.
This sense of loss carries over into the less fantasy-based songs, such as Salisbury Plain (one of the few non-Yorkshire songs) and Leaving the Dales, a heartbreaking lament for a lost way of life — the land of a people who struggled and failed.
Most of the songs are by Bob or Carole, but two (Salisbury Plain and Mr Trill's Song, a delightful tribute to morris dancing) have lyrics by Ashley Hutchings, while Little Woman, while fitting perfectly into Mr Fox's style, is by Dave Mason of the progressive-rock band Traffic, who themselves had made the odd foray into folk rock.
One of the most persistent problems of Mr Fox's brief existence was lack of funds — they couldn't afford their own PA, for instance, and were frequently let down by inadequate equipment provided by the venue — and between the two albums they were forced to slim down to just the Peggs and the rhythm section. Although this meant losing some of the layering and texture found on the first album, it gave The Gipsy an extra rawness and energy.
Mr Fox, 1971: l. to r. Alun Eden, Bob Pegg, Carole Pegg, Barry Lyons
The second album was built around the 13-minute title track, a strange song that's a combination of love-story, allegorical journey and tribute to the Dales. It tells of the narrator's love for a gipsy girl (I'd like to tell you people that I met her at a fair/But I met her in a pub down by the far side of the square) who won't be tied down. When she goes travelling without saying goodbye, he follows her through the Dales, meeting local people and commenting on local traditions, till he catches up, though it's for nothing but a final farewell in the end. The centrepiece of the track is an instrumental section featuring Carole's idiosyncratic fiddle-playing that portrays perfectly the feeling of trudging alone across the moors.
The remaining songs are more stylistically varied than on the first album, including a bizarre piece called Aunt Lucy Broadwood, which Bob has described as the first — and only? — example of English folk rap. The title character was an important Edwardian folk-song collector — I recall Bob saying, when I saw him live around 1980, that he'd always imagined her as rather a strait-laced woman and wanted to give her one exciting day. Quite a day — she finishes up in Hell.
Another extraordinary track is Carole's song Mendle, possibly the closest folk-rock has ever got to pure psychedelia, with a distorted bass playing the lead line in places. The song's about witchcraft, which became a more prominent element in her post-Mr Fox work — she'd been reading the classic book on the Pendle witches, Mist Over Pendle, and the otherwise inexplicable title was allegedly short for Pissed Over Mendle.
Mr Fox never had an easy ride, partly because the Peggs, especially Bob, had already acquired the reputation of being prickly, outspoken people who hadn't always endeared themselves to the folk world. Their marriage was also in the throes of breakdown, creating enormous tension, and the band gradually disintegrated after making The Gipsy.
It's probably fair to say that Mr Fox failed at the time partly due to a lack of resources that created problems beyond their control, partly because they had the reputation of being very inconsistent live, but mostly because they simply weren't what the audiences expected or wanted at the time. Carole's fiddle-style, for instance, which was based on traditional English ways of playing, would have sounded scrapy and lacklustre to audiences used to the Irish-influenced flying-fingers style popular then (and now). In fact, it was perfect for the drone-based, dreamlike music Mr Fox were playing, and sounds a good deal less strange now.
Both Bob and Carole produced solo albums during the 70s — for me, the highlight is Bob's stunning 1975 concept album, Ancient Maps, telling of a symbolic fantasy quest — but none of them are available on CD. Note to any relevant record companies listening — PUT THIS RIGHT. Since then, they've concentrated more on folkloric or educational projects, though Bob released a superb CD in the 90s called The Last Wolf.
Both Mr Fox albums can now be had, though, for a paltry sum, and I think it's time they enjoyed a well-deserved revival of interest. Whether you're interested in folk rock or in macabre fantasy tales — or, like me, in both — this is an essential CD (or download, if you really must). Perhaps the world is ready for Mr Fox now.